Showbituary: 3 Types of Broadway Success and Why I Kind of Don’t Care that Spider-Man Is Closing

by lucky on November 22, 2013

in Broadway Journal

So I wandered into a Twitter conversation the other day with our noble Twitter friend, @Adam807, about the impending demise of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. His basic position: That the show accomplished something because it had some keepable moments and a respectable run, and that it made a lot of kids happy along the way. There was a lot of other stuff in there, too, including the stellar moment wherein I lowballed the capitalization costs of the show by a solid $50 million dollars — perhaps because my brain is unable to process how any Broadway show — flying or no flying — could cost that much goddamn money.

But this got me thinking about a pretty basic thing: How I just don’t believe that a Broadway show has value simply because it exists. I really don’t. I don’t believe that shows fundamentally “deserve” to stay open. I don’t believe that every moment of theater that happens on Broadway is a perfect flower of entertainment history that struggles for precious existence in a toxic world of DirectTV, Sports Center, and bounce houses. I don’t believe this any more than I believe that stupid TV shows should continue to air, or that I’m not allowed to laugh my face off at Plato’s School in the Musee d’Orsay, or that the crappy Italian restaurant on my block should continue to sit there empty on Friday nights. Unsuccessful stuff dies. Fin.

And Broadway is a business, baby, one that makes a shitton of money. And to me, the math with Spider-Man is blindingly simple, and accessible even to my poor brain, which still struggles to split the check at Chelsea Grill on a Wednesday night: The show is a failure. It is a failure on every possible front.

There are only three ways for a show to be successful on Broadway. It can be a financial success, an artistic success, or both. It cannot be successful by other paremeters, say, in pie making or swimming. Those things do not exist in the universe of Broadway, just like Hermione hooking up with Harry does not exist in the universe of Harry Potter. It is not real, except in your mind and in your fun, but ultimately strictly unofficial fanfiction.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is not a success by any parameter that matters in the universe of Broadway. None. It is, by all accounts, a complete financial disaster, and it sucked — a double whammy that means, in very simple terms, that it sucks at everything. It will be remembered not for its flying tricks (they were cool) or its lovely cast (Reeve Carney!) or its ambition (Julie Taymor — high five, my sister; stay strong) or for the limited scads of sweet young children that it delighted. It will be remembered as the biggest fucking Broadway disaster of the century wherein people nearly died, everyone of import got sued or fired, and the show’s much-touted magic tricks didn’t consistently work three years into its run. 

That’s not good, you guys.

And now that Spidey is going home — to Broadway Heaven, otherwise known as Las Vegas — the show still doesn’t have a clean shot at new success. Every subsequent production, after all, will incur its own capitalization costs, on top of the incredible debt that’s already come from its Broadway run. My guess? That won’t be cheap. The flying tricks alone undoubtedly require an intense level of customization, depending on the space. So Spider-Man is far from an an easy transfer, and it is many (many) years from financial success.

Can a failing business turn around? Certainly. But there’s very little at this point I’m guessing, that can fix lyrics like, “DNA is the way.” Or make the show not about… spiders. That part of Spider-Man‘s perfect storm of failure — that the show is mind-numbingly bad — will live on and on, in Vegas and in countries around the world. But hey, maybe that’ll work to its benefit. Maybe Arachne makes more sense in German or Mandarin…

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

adam807 November 22, 2013 at 11:37 am

Funnily enough, I was going to write a post about this conversation myself but a) hadn’t gotten to it and b) *usually* try to avoid writing about theatre on my ghost town of a blog for professional reasons so yay for this! :)

I actually agree 100% with everything you say in paragraph 2. Shows close, new shows open. No matter how great a show is or how much we love it or how many people work on it, it will eventually close, and a new one will take its place. I’m actually quite nostalgic for the time I never actually knew when shows could recoup in a few months and would only run that long and there were that many more shows to see because of it. But I’ve been in those trenches, and even when you know you’re working on a flop and you see it coming a mile away, closing SUCKS. You’re out of a job. You work your ass off on an expanded holiday schedule and then you have no paychecks anymore. Happy New Year! Even if you HATE your job (and believe me, I have), you don’t want to go back to temping. And yes there will be other shows but not in January or February and probably not in the gigantic Foxwoods for at least a year. And those investors lost their shirts and those creatives didn’t set out to make a bad show, and it’s hard, even if you think they deserve it — even if THEY think they deserve it. It’s also the deal that they all signed up for, and we shouldn’t cry for them, Argentina. But there’s this GLOATING that happens these days when shows go down in flames that I intensely dislike, and that was why I came at you on Twitter (it wasn’t just you, that was just the straw that broke Arachne’s back). You don’t have to be sorry it’s closing, not at all. And to be clear, I’m not either. I’m just not gleeful about it. (Neither do you seem to be here, for the record.)

And this wasn’t clear under the constraints of Twitter: I do NOT think Spider-Man was a success in any way. Business-wise, I don’t know what the investors were thinking. It’s possible that there’s a very long game at play here, starting with Vegas, but on Broadway alone the numbers never made sense, even at the beginning. It was always mathematically impossible, or close to it, for the show to recoup. As I said on Twitter, I DO understand the impulse to keep trying, to say “We’ve already sunk this much money, which we’ll definitely lose if we stop now, so we may as well keep trying.” It’s not how I roll but I get it. It’s also, precisely because of the finances, something that Broadway doesn’t get to do much. Closing the show and trying to fix it was ballsy as hell, and I respect them for making the effort. Did it work? No. The show’s artistic failures have been discussed enough, and I don’t disagree at all. But I appreciate the attempt, especially having seen both versions.

But I do stand by my assertion that there were areas in which it succeeded, or at least was crazy interesting. I’m pretty fucking jaded and some of the stagecraft in that show blew my mind (none of it, for the record, the much-touted flying around the theatre). Was it smart to spend that kind of money on it? Did it work artistically? Probably not. But I’m eager to see how the techniques, now that they’re out there, will be used in the future. That’s not a good defense of the show as a whole, but it does mean there’s SOME value on that stage. And also, truth time: I saw the show three times (1.0, 2.0 in previews and then again after it was frozen) and for my (nowhere near full price) money, I enjoyed myself every time. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but as spectacle, as circus and yes, to some extent as trainwreck, I’m not one bit sorry I went. (I think there’s a lot to be said for the fact that Julie Taymor originally conceived the show as something that would play in arenas, or a circus tent. If it weren’t on Broadway at all, how would we feel about it? The expectations might be very different.)

Broadway in the aggregate “makes a shitton of money.” But individually MOST shows lose money. That’s why I admire the ambition here, stupid and misguided as it may have been. To do something this risky — and it was always risky — takes balls. But remember waaaaaay back when this was first announced? It sounded, to me anyway, like a GREAT idea! Julie Taymor, check. U2, check. (Honestly, for me the biggest disappointment of the whole show is the score.) Alan Fucking Cumming as the Green Goblin, check. No one sets out to make garbage. So again, I don’t want to gloat. We can look back and analyze and figure out what went wrong and by all means call a flop a flop, but that’s not the same thing.

Lastly, and this is maybe the most important thing to me: Just because YOU think a show is “mind-numbingly bad” doesn’t mean it is an objective failure TO EVERYONE. (Obviously you shouldn’t preface everything on Twitter or your blog with “in my opinion,” we get it, but there’s a tone that can creep in (not by any means just with you, I do it too), especially in 140 characters.) We travel in a world of theatre snobs (myself absolutely included), but the very fact that Spider-Man ran for over three years suggests that it is not a complete failure. Sure, runs don’t correlate to artistic merit (hi, Merrily We Roll Along and Cats!), but clearly SOMEONE wanted to see Spider-Man, and pay for the privilege. That’s good for Broadway (tourists rarely see just one show). It’s good for people who like musicals and want other people to see lots of them. I couldn’t stand Mary Poppins (and of course I’m not drawing a REAL parallel here, artistically), but that doesn’t take anything away from all the people who DO, and all the little kids who saw their first musical at the New Amsterdam. It has a place. The year when Phantom and Avenue Q and Taboo were all playing on the same block made me so happy, because it really felt like you had something for everyone, a big inclusive Broadway. (#jentepperproblems) We don’t have to see everything. Most people don’t GET to see everything. Let people enjoy what they enjoy, whether it’s a huge messy spectacle or Caroline or Change.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I think we largely agree! This is just a thing that I hate about the Broadway community, and its commentators, this schadenfreude. (Again, not getting that here, but I saw it A LOT in various places on the day we Twitgued…that portmanteau doesn’t work.) There’s a different between not being sorry a show is closing and being all “HA! That show was terrible and it deserves to die, suck it!” People worked hard on that show. Those people knew what they were in for and that it would someday close, and in this case they’re probably lucky it ran as long as it did! I’m excited to see what comes in next, and I’m excited to see Julie’s Midsummer. Everyone moves on. There is a difference between being not-sad and being happy. There’s a way to criticize bad choices and still be respectful towards the people who work hard at that theatre every night.

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adam807 November 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Okay, wait, one more thing: I go to the theatre to have a good time. I don’t think this is a radical position. I don’t at all think that entertainment and fluff are synonymous. I happen to think Sweeney Todd is a GREAT time. I am often entertained if I am sobbing. That’s me. But ultimately, I think there’s plenty of room in the world for shows that are fun but not actually good. Craptacular, if you will. :) I completely respect that you had no fun at all at Spider-Man. But I don’t ever want to say that the people who did are “wrong.”

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Amanda November 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm

My problem is with the black-and-white thinking here and all over the internet. I generally don’t read reviews because I’m uninterested in critics who spend more time snarking and showing off how clever they are than actually describing the work in a way that is useful for patrons. We make this worse by then taking those reviews and boiling them down to a simple plus or minus. How much art is unequivocally good or bad? You thought SPIDER-MAN was totally bad. But, as Adam said above, that isn’t a fact. It’s merely your opinion. There are a million ingredients in a Broadway musical. No one is going to defend SPIDER-MAN’s score or book. But it was a technical marvel. You think that’s faint praise, but it isn’t.

To act as if the good things about SPIDER-MAN were but lonely droplets in a vast ocean of terribleness is to do the show (and discussion of theatre in general) a great disservice. The good things about SPIDER-MAN were AMAZING. (See also: the good things about GHOST.) You clearly don’t agree, but to see shows that are on the cutting edge of theatrical technology is tremendously exciting to me. SPIDER-MAN made me feel like a child again, someone who was experiencing theatre in a pure, visceral way. It blew my mind and it was absolutely worth the price of admission in my opinion. I haven’t done a poll of all the people leaving SPIDER-MAN, but I know I’m not alone in this. It’s a valid opinion.

I also think that, even if the show was an artistic failure, it was an endlessly interesting failure that said “fuck you” to the stodgy conventions of Broadway musicals at every turn. Scott Brown’s review of 1.0 said it best: “Conceptually speaking, it’s closer to a theme-park stunt spectacular than ‘circus art,’ closer to a comic than a musical, closer to The Cremaster Cycle than a rock concert. But ‘closer’ implies proximity to some fixed point, and Spider-man is faaaar out, man. It’s by turns hyperstimulated, vivid, lurid, overeducated, underbaked, terrifying, confusing, distracted, ridiculously slick, shockingly clumsy, unmistakably monomaniacal and clinically bipolar. …As maximalist camp, it succeeds thunderously. Is that what it intends to be? Irrelevant. To ascribe intent would be to limit the power of this show’s occasionally frightening, often confounding, always metastasizing imagination.”

Brown is the only critic who understood that SPIDER-MAN never played by the rules. He didn’t play by the rules in this review (a Matthew Barney reference!) which could hardly be boiled down to “positive” or “negative.”

You’re probably right that SPIDER-MAN will be remembered as “the biggest fucking Broadway disaster of the century.” I’m not saying it’s okay that people got hurt or equipment didn’t work, although Adam will be the first to tell you that being an acrobat is a high-risk profession and people on Broadway get injured all the fucking time. Shows get stopped all the time too. It’s live theatre. Last night I met a couple who saw FUN HOME after it opened and were sent home ten minutes in because of a technical malfunction. AT FUN HOME. History is unkind and memories lack nuance and accuracy. Just because SPIDER-MAN will be remembered as a disaster doesn’t mean that’s all it was.

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the mick November 22, 2013 at 4:35 pm

While on one level I agree with some of the basic argument here — that the Spider-Man set did some amazing things in new ways, that there were genuinely thrilling moments in the show, that Julie Taymor tried something big and interesting and potentially great with the storytelling — I disagree with the larger point.

Most people do not go to the theater interested in equivocating about quality, in finding something (anything!) to like and praise. My wonderful, suburban-dwelling parents do not come all the way into New York City and spend hundreds of dollars on theater tickets and dinner to see a cool set, or a very nice collection of costumes. Sure, they might leave the theater remarking on a great set or stunning garments — perhaps in part because who wants to think they just wasted hundreds of dollars and hours of their life — but if that’s their only praise, well… we have a huge problem.

Which is not to say that sets are not important. The spectacle — costumes, lights, sets — is an integral part of the experience of live theater. No one will deny that. But perfect, perfectly moving shows can be staged in an empty black box. And if the only thing, or the first thing, you can praise about a show is its set, then it has failed at the most fundamental thing a musical sets out to do: tell the audience a good (clear, scrutable) story with the help of a great score.

You can’t hum the set.

So yes, it’s okay to care about what a set looks like. And it’s awesome to praise a great set. I personally pray to god someone who saw Spider-Man got inspired, and that someday when they’re working on Broadway’s next great artistic (and perhaps financial) triumph, they incorporate or riff on what they saw. I hope it’s wonderful I hope that it moves Broadway forward.

But I struggle with the idea that critics and commentators are to be railed against, or are somehow ‘wrong,’ for not drilling down to level twelve to find something to praise in a show. Or even just to talk about. Not when the work has failed on the most basic levels.

Especially in this case. Because when you create, and stage, a $75 million dollar show on Broadway — and not, say, in an arena — you subject your work to the standards that are associated with Broadway. And if you want to break the rules, you better do it well. Because if you don’t, it’s going to backfire. People are going to call you out on it. That’s the risk of, well, risk-taking.

You know what else happens when you spend $75 million dollars on a show? You put a target on your back. Things become extremely black-and-white when 75 mil is on the line, whether anyone thinks that’s fair, or not. You better live up to the hype you’re creating. And you better do it with more than just your set. Because this world isn’t fair.

And because theater critics have an audience that is much, much larger than just the theater community. And an editor who expects a clear, cohesive argument presented with linguistic style and flair, all within a specific word count. So I find slamming criticism, or a critic and his or her specific style and perspective, all because they are too black-and-white and they don’t frequently enough remark upon the quality of the costumes, is short-sighted and extremely inside-baseball.

What’s more, the industry doesn’t help itself by staging more and more expensive shows with higher and higher priced tickets necessary to help them on their journey to recoupment. If my aforementioned parents are being asked to spend $800+ to take my three young cousins to the theater, they better get more than a flashy set.

And that is where I really begin to struggle with the idea that we’re all supposed to be nice and find something to defend or praise and not look at something that failed to tell me a good story with a bunch of good songs and say “happy trails, bro, but I won’t miss you.”

Broadway learns grows from its failures too. Or it should, if it deserves to survive.

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adam807 November 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Sure! Yes! I agree with all of this! But again, YOU hummed the set (or didn’t), OTHER PEOPLE may have hummed the songs. That was my point there. Seeing theater is always a risk too (and yes it should cost less and therefore be less risky). It’s why we need critics and friends and relatives whose opinions we trust to help your parents decide what to see. I’m guessing that most of the people who wound up seeing Spider-Man, once we industry gawkers were done, were there because they wanted to be. Were some of them disappointed? Undoubtedly. But you certainly can’t say that they didn’t have the opportunity to be well-informed about the show before they bought tickets!

My first Broadway show was Peter Pan. I suspect it was terrible. But literally the ONLY thing I remember about it is Sandy Duncan flying out over the audience. There’s a shot in the Spider-Man commercial of a little kid looking just awestruck. I totally agree with you that we shouldn’t be paying $200 for a kids’ show, and that his parents shouldn’t have to be miserable for him to have that experience. But maybe he’s going to grow up to be us. And maybe his parents actually weren’t miserable because they don’t have the same taste as you do. Or don’t have taste, if you want to be mean about it, but hey, if they had a good time, good for them.

But OF COURSE critics should criticize! And no, they shouldn’t hunt for something positive to say, like it’s Little League and everyone gets a trophy for showing up. You’re not writing this blog for those people. Hate away! Your opinions are as valid as that family’s I invented, and you’re not writing for them anyway. Critics should absolutely say “I hated this show and here’s why” if that’s how they feel. It is not at all your responsibility to spare anyone’s feelings. I have NO problem with any of the reviews of Spider-Man calling the show as they saw it. Or with them bringing in the story behind the show, which had become such an integral part of the whole thing. I didn’t read anything that I felt was unfair or inappropriate, and I read a lot.

What I was responding to specifically, separate and apart from the merits (or lack thereof) of this or any other show is the gloating, and the joy at failure. “Happy trails, bro, I won’t miss you” is a totally acceptable response to any show closing! As is, “Wow, that was a debacle, what can we learn?” “Hahahahaha, I dance on your grave!” in my opinion, is not so much.

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Amanda November 22, 2013 at 6:50 pm

You’ve reduced what I said to costumes and sets when I never used the words “costumes” or “sets,” nor was I referring to costumes or sets. I didn’t have to try hard to find something to enjoy about SPIDER-MAN. Nothing I said was inside-baseball at all. If a child can enjoy your show, at the basest level, I think that is the very OPPOSITE of esoteric. As Adam said, a show can be entertaining without being wholly good. And entertainment is often all people are looking for when they go to see a Broadway musical. Maybe your parents aren’t such people, but my parents sure as hell are.

I’m not some Pollyanna who thinks everyone should love everything. I was lobbying for NUANCE, not baseless positivity. It was not my intention to slam all critics or the art of criticism. In fact, I think the crass thumbs up/thumbs down internet culture is detrimental to this art form. Scott Brown’s review, which I quoted, was not positive! It was mixed and complicated, like the show.

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rieglet November 23, 2013 at 2:53 am

I just wanted to jump in here and correct you on one front, Lucky. It was Chelsea Grill on a TUESDAY night when you struggled to split the check. But regardless, good points all around. Bravo, folks! Good talk!

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adam807 November 23, 2013 at 9:11 am

Something else that just occurred to me: When a bad show has redeeming qualities, it can be harder for me than when it doesn’t. Because it suggests an unreached potential. Like, “well the set was great and that one song rocked, so there’s not a complete lack of talent here…where did it go wrong?” (We know where Spider-Man went wrong, I’m speaking generally.) Again, that’s not something that critics should necessarily be concerned with, but for me as an audience member, it sort of makes me sad. For example, I saw Dance of the Vampires twice, because I saw an early hot mess of a preview but there were things in it I really liked. When I went back, the show had gotten 100 times better. It still wasn’t enough, and in a way the fact that it seemed like they had the POTENTIAL to turn it around if they’d had a little more time and money was harder than if it had just sucked, even though the experience of watching the show was more enjoyable. Does that make sense? I think the story of flops that have gone on to become beloved, or have cult followings, is the story of failed potential. That’s why they captivate people.

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Amanda November 24, 2013 at 3:45 pm

P.S. Lest you still think stagecraft is not an important element of theatre, WAR HORSE was a success on every level solely because of its stagecraft. Critics likes it. Tourists liked it. Awards committees liked it. It wasn’t the script. It was the giant horse puppets.

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adam807 November 25, 2013 at 10:45 am

Off-topic but WAR HORSE (which I loved) is my best ammunition in my argument that the Tonys should have two Best Play categories — one for the playwright/script and one for the producers/production, similar to the way the musical categories are broken up.

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Amanda November 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm

P.P.S. Refusing to post the comments of people who (CIVILLY!) disagree with you is, in essence, silencing your critics. And what could undermine your defense of criticism more than that?

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the mick November 24, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Sorry, bro. I was away from my computer basically all weekend. Important Homeland marathon to attend to.

I’m all caught up now, though. And all the comments are live.

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adam807 December 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm

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